Maurice was in some puzzlement as to how, having courteously regretted he could not receive Lady Trembourne back into his establishment, he might bring her back without having to humble himself and ask her. The solution to the problem was, fortunately, put into his hands by her sister-in-law.
The Countess of Pockinford was a long-cherished patron: still a pretty little dumpling after a fruitful marriage bearing a fine thriving family. Alas, she still posed the problem of how to dress her in the crack of style without offending the Earl’s Evangelical strictures upon the necessity for womanly modesty in dress – that meant that she was more modestly dressed even than her sister, a clergyman’s wife: but the Reverend Mr Lucas did not think that a low-cut neckline in keeping with the dictates of fashion was the debauchery that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. But Maurice contrived, and no-one considered the Countess a dowd.
Maurice was busy about checking that her measurements were still the same when she said, nervously, O, Maurice, I know you must have a deal on hand, so many clients and coming up so near to the Season, but Lady Trembourne has been in a most exceeding taking over the shocking business with Madame Francine.
Could you fit her – o, and Lady Sarah – I should be most exceeding grateful.
Well – Maurice began, and saw the famed trembling of the Countess’s lower lip and the air of impending tearfulness, that could cause the most disagreeable of ladies in the philanthropic set – if not her sister-in-law – to fall in with her wishes. Do you ask it, Lady Pockinford, I will see can I make a little time when I might undertake the two of 'em. I daresay I shall be able to find enough hands - sure the seamstresses at Madame Francine’s found themselves cast out and, I hear, wages unpaid.
O, 'tis quite shocking! cried Lady Pockinford. Is not the lot of a seamstress hard enough already? Lady Bexbury and I were discussing the matter only lately. I am sure you treat your needlewomen well, but I daresay that you are obliged to turn the majority of them off for a good part of the year?
Indeed 'tis so – worked to rags during the Season, alas, and then having to make do on piece-work at home –
Or indeed, said Lady Pockinford, falling into vice.
So 'tis given out. If you would just turn around a little and raise your arms?
So we are thinking about a plan, for there is a matter about making clothes for the orphans, and ladies say, would it not be a fine thing to have a working-party? but then there is ever some reason why they may not come work, and Lady Bexbury said, sure there are women that need such employment, did we get up a fund for a work-room, where they might come and be in good conditions and be paid, and mayhap get a meal, and their moral character would be preserved –
Why, 'tis a most excellent plan, and I daresay Lady Bexbury is already about writing some pamphlet upon the matter, I will certainly take a few to lay about the receiving-room so that the ladies that come here may learn of this enterprize.
O, cried Lady Pockinford with her pretty dimpling smile, O, that is so very kind.
He smiled and shook his head after she had left. One would say she deserved better than a husband with such narrow views, but 'twas entirely known within Society that they doated upon one another.
He made the final notes for her gowns, including the need to make some alterations to her mannequin, tidied everything away, looked about the room, put on his hat and coat and picked up his cane, and with a slight sigh departed for Basil’s studio.
For Basil had been most pressing among their set for a party to come see the unveiling of his latest large painting – the Theban Band at the Battle of Chaeronea – and seemed in a somewhat touchy mood at present. Mayhap – if there was no re-opening of this foolish suggestion that he should come act as Basil’s factotum – he might even remain behind when the company had departed.
Or maybe he would not, he thought, when he observed Basil making up to Tom Tressillian, even if 'twas only so that Tom would commission a painting of himself in some telling character. And – good heavens – was that young Orlando Richardson? Sure he bore a considerable resemblance to his late great-uncle Elias Winch. Had his doting mama not complained to Maurice at her fittings that in spite of being educated up a gentleman by her doting all-but-husband Danvers Dalrymple, nothing would do for her son but to go on stage? – in the tones of one that felt she should make some complaint but was rather pleased than otherwise.
Maurice went over to desire an introduction and discovered that the person obscured behind an easel with a half-finished canvas upon it was MacDonald. They exchanged civil nods. Do you know Mr Richardson? Permit me to introduce you.
O, indeed I have heard of you! said the young man. Mama will ever sing your praises.
I see, said MacDonald, that our host neglects his duties. Let me get you a glass of wine.
Maurice took the wine and wondered, could it be that Basil was deliberately snubbing him, rather than merely momentarily dazzled by the handsome young actor?
Indeed, Basil’s manner to him seemed unwonted brusque, compared to his attentions to the rest of the company. If he was going to behave thus, Maurice was not going to linger. He took his outer garments from Basil’s man, and went out into an evening that had turned to pelting sleety rain.
Here – a hand grabbed his arm – I have just managed to wave down a hansom, get in before you are drenched.
Maurice allowed himself to be thrust into the cab and sat down. He relished the prospect of getting thoroughly soaked even less than sharing the narrow space with MacDonald.
MacDonald remarked that he now apprehended why Lady Bexbury called Linsleigh that great bore - while he will never rival Mr Nixon of the Home Office, he is still a very tedious fellow. But, he went on, I fancy he is a friend of yours – perchance he may show better in different company?
Instead of saying in waspish tones that doubtless Basil was not up to Mr MacDonald’s most exceeding exacting standards, Maurice replied that indeed, Basil was wont to run on without noting whether his listeners were interested or not.
(Damn. He did not want to find himself agreeing with MacDonald over such a matter.)
Where should you like to be dropped?
Maurice gave the direction for his lodgings – I hope 'tis not out of your way?
Not in the least. But – since we are met thus – I mind that there was a matter I have been commissioned to investigate, that you may have some intelligence concerning. He looked about for a moment and said, I do not suppose the cab-driver goes spy, but yet I had rather it were a little more private. Is there some time we might –
Maurice, who was already feeling those sensations that he had become accustomed to experience in close proximity to MacDonald, bit his lip and then said, why do you not step up to my lodgings, have you no engagement to be at –
Why, should only take a moment or so, but is very gracious of you.
Of course he was only going to ask whatever question it was, and then go away again. He would not stay.
They ascended the stairs in silence, and Maurice unlocked the door. Latching it behind him, he turned to where MacDonald was looking about him with interest, entirely intending – no, only that – to ask what his investigation was, and found himself going lean up against him.
A hand stroked down his back and then MacDonald said thoughtfully, we are both standing here with our hats still on in rain-splashed coats that we should take off. That is, if you have any desire for me to linger beyond the five minutes I think my question like to take.
You must know I do. Do you wish to stay?
In answer, MacDonald began to remove his coat.
Maurice swallowed. I will just go and light the fire, he said.
He was still kneeling by the hearth when MacDonald came in. He stood up and said, I only have gin, would you care for anything to drink.
Not in particular, but do you do as you would like.
Maurice went and poured himself a glass of gin. So, he said, what did you wish to ask me?
Firstly, do you dress Lady Sarah Channery?
Maurice turned around. I used to, she then followed Lady Trembourne to Madame Francine’s, and I have been beguiled into saying I will go dress the two of 'em again. Why?
Did she ever make use of your discreet chamber?
Maurice snorted. Lady Sarah? Why do you ask? – O, I apprehend what this is about. Sir Stockwell thinks she has took a lover: if she has, must be very recent.
Oh, she has, I have it on the very best authority. But I thought it possibly material to discover whether she was in the habit.
I confide not. But has she admitted to you - ?
Not she; the gentleman that has been enjoying her favours.
There is some fellow going around boasting upon the matter?
Not in the least, I am sure he is entire discreet and would not at all desire to have a crim. con action brought against him: but is a good friend of mine, and disclosed it to me because the lady had received a note demanding recompense for silence. The danger is probably passed, now Mrs Fanny has disappeared, but I wonder if ‘twas an accustomed practice with Lady Sarah to enter upon such liaisons; also whether any ladies that have returned to you have said aught of similar demands?
Not so far. But – at least, as he has given it out – Sir Stockwell is not in any jealous passion in the matter, merely wishes ascertain whether there will be any scandal –
But does Lady Sarah apprehend that?
Perchance not! I fancy 'tis not such a case as the Zellens, where they have come to a mutual understanding.
He gulped down the last of the gin and walked across the room to where MacDonald was sitting. I should say that now these questions are asked and answered, you should go.
Yes, of course you should. And do you ask me to, I will.
Maurice straddled the outstretched legs and stooped to kiss that mouth that was so very lovely when it smiled as it was doing now.